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A top Chinese official on Monday outlined plans to ensure only "patriots" run Hong Kong as Beijing seeks to neuter any remaining democratic opposition and take a more direct role in how the business hub is run.
The landmark speech by Xia Baolong, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, came just two weeks ahead of the annual meeting of China's rubber-stamp legislature as speculation grows that further measures are being planned to sew up control of the city.
"The most vital and pressing task to enforce rule by patriots is to improve the relevant systems, particularly the relevant electoral system," Xia said, according to a speech published by his office.
"Being patriotic means loving the People's Republic of China."
Hong Kong has never been a democracy -- something that has fuelled protests and resentment towards Beijing.
But until recently, the city had a veneer of choice that allowed a small and vocal opposition to flourish at certain local elections.
After huge and often violent democracy protests swept the city in 2019 -- and opposition politicians won a landslide in district council elections -- Beijing responded with a major crackdown.
At last year's meeting, China's National People's Congress imposed a sweeping national security law that outlawed much dissent in Hong Kong and radically transformed its relationship with the authoritarian mainland.
Hong Kongers are therefore looking closely at what the next meeting might bring.
Xia's comments suggest Beijing is seeking to ensure no opposition candidates are able to stand in the city's limited elections and echoing weeks of calls in China's state media for such a purge.
Authorities, he said, must "close loopholes" that allow "anti-China troublemakers" into politics.
"Improving the relevant electoral system must be led by the central government," he added.
- 'Red lines' -
Xia also laid out the criteria for what makes a "real patriot", including love for the People's Republic of China, its constitution and the Communist Party.
He added that the judiciary must also be patriots -- a potentially ominous warning for those who fear Beijing is planning to overhaul Hong Kong's independent courts, one of the pillars of its success as a business hub.
Ahead of its 1997 handover by Britain, China agreed to let Hong Kong keep certain liberties and autonomy for 50 years in a model dubbed "One Country, Two Systems".
Western governments and critics accuse Beijing of shredding that commitment in recent years.
Beijing counters that it is restoring stability.
What form electoral reform might take remains to be seen.
Beijing could further ramp up control of the city's half-elected legislature to maintain an even more solid majority for its supporters in a chamber already devoid of any opposition after the courts disqualified some opposition figures because of their poliical views.
It could also go after district council elections -- the only time Hong Kongers get to vote for every seat.
Andrew Leung, the pro-Beijing president of Hong Kong's legislature, told reporters on Monday that Xia was "outlining the red lines for people holding high offices in Hong Kong".
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam welcomed Xia's speech and rejected concerns that dissenting voices were being oppressed.
"If we must use the word 'oppress, it's oppressing those who advocate Hong Kong independence, who attempted to push Hong Kong into the abyss of violence and those who forget their ancestry, do not recognise themselves as Chinese, who collude with foreign political organisations to destroy Hong Kong," she told reporters.